Studio BV refreshes the interiors of an old garment-making factory with nods to the structure’s history

By Joel Hoekstra

Among the first skyscrapers erected in Minneapolis was the Kickernick Building. Built in 1896, the red-brick-and-timber Renaissance Revival structure towered over the corner of First Avenue North and Fifth Street, enthralling passersby. Its height? Seven stories tall.

The building originally housed a boot and shoe company. But it soon became the headquarters of Kickernick, a maker of women’s lingerie and undergarments (including those designed for the “sports-loving woman of today,” according to a 1930s advertisement). Both businesses were female-owned and employed thousands of women over the decades. Garment-making was one of the few professions open to women in the first half of the 20th century.

That history served as inspiration for Studio BV when the firm was asked to transform the interiors of the 120,000-square-foot building for its current owner, United Properties, in 2017. Studio BV founder Betsy Vohs, Assoc. AIA, saw an opportunity to not only brighten the structure’s interior, which had been darkened by age and awkward renovations, but also spotlight the building’s past. “So many great stories are embedded in the architecture,” says Vohs. “The women who worked here were entrepreneurs, and that made an impression on me, because I’m a woman who leads a firm.”

The client, too, saw the building’s history as a selling point. “We felt like the project was a diamond in the rough,” says Gordy Stofer, vice president of development at United Properties. “One of our main goals was to unlock and celebrate the history of the building, which is what we find most creative tenants are looking for in office space these days.”

United Propertiesalso wanted the building to relate to the street and the surrounding neighborhood. What would bring people into the building? How could the structure become a hub for community conversation and gathering? Old buildings often have an imposing exterior and cramped interiors; could Vohs and her team find a way to open the building up while still capitalizing on its chief character trait—its brick-and-timber beauty? “It was important to create some curiosity from the street,” says Vohs. “We wanted people to feel like they could come in, which would help make the neighborhood feel more safe, open, and connected.”

To accomplish all this, Studio BV focused on the building’s public spaces. Inside the main entry, for example, walls were removed and wood and tile floors were polished to bring light deeper into what is now a more spacious lobby. Within that space, the design team shaped a variety of conversation nooks and meeting areas. There are tables and lamps and piles of books but no TVs—not even a digital directory. “We wanted the space to feel warm, filled with nice things that make you want to hang out,” says Vohs. “We also wanted it to be a little more analog—an escape from the always-on world.”

Comfy chairs and area rugs set the tone, but United Properties and Studio BV also added original artwork by local female artists, including paintings by Siri Knutson and Kimberly Benson and hand-forged copper sculptures by Tia Salmela Keobounpheng. “We felt that if you put in nice things, people would respect the space,” says Vohs.

Studio BV tapped the Kickernick’s history to create two unique design elements. The entry stairs are flanked by screens made of leather straps and metal pulleys—a nod to the machinery that once powered the building’s manufacturing businesses—while a white-felt wall display echoes old Kickernick sewing patterns. “We felt it was important to weave some of the historical narrative into the space,” says Vohs, “so we abstracted the patterns into these panels and covered them in felt. They offer visual texture while also softening the place acoustically.”

Many offices in the building use the tables in the lobby for staff meetings, and the space is home to numerous people working away on their laptops most hours of the workday. Vohs says she’s even heard from workers from surrounding buildings who slip into the space—and that delights her. “That’s the value proposition of the building,” she says. “We were driving that, and the client was right there with us. They believed that the design could create value for current tenants, attract future tenants, and really change the neighborhood. For this building to be successful, the neighborhood has to be successful—that’s part of it.”

On a recent afternoon, Vohs looked on approvingly as office workers lounged in chairs in the lobby and people entering the building slowed their pace to look at the artwork. “We’retrying to lead this neighborhood,” says Vohs. “I think the building is doing a pretty good job of that.”

Kickernick Building Renovation
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: United Properties
Architect: Studio BV
Principal-in-charge and lead designer: Betsy Vohs, Assoc. AIA
General contractor: Mission Construction
Size: 120,000 square feet
Completion: February 2019
Photographer: Gaffer Photography